An expert poker player and columnist for "Card Player" magazine shows how players at every level of the game can master the art of the bluff.
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The Book of Bluffs
By Matt Lessinger
Warner BooksCopyright © 2005 Matt Lessinger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGeneral Bluffing Thoughts
Most of this book will focus on specific situations. This chapter will discuss some of the concepts that relate to bluffing as a whole.
Twelve Bluffing Proverbs
You will see many of these proverbs repeated, and they will be italicized for emphasis. You must understand them, remember them, and appreciate their importance:
1. There are only two ways to win a pot: You can show down the best hand, or bluff with the worst one.
If you don't bluff, you are throwing away half of your pot-winning potential. Yes, you can beat certain games by simply biding your time, showing down the best hand as often as possible, and trying to fold early when you sense you are beaten. But it's foolish to think you'll never bluff.
In many games, failure to bluff well can be the difference between winning and losing. That includes, but is not limited to: tournaments, tight games, shorthanded games, and games in which your opponents give your bets too much respect. Later on, we'll discuss those games in more detail.
Bluffing is vital in all higher-limit games. If you're a low-limit player looking to move up, you'd better have as many ways to win as you can. You'll be against many players who already understand the importance of bluffing, and if you fail to recognize that importance, you'll be at a distinct disadvantage. It'll be like entering a battle with a water pistol against a platoon armed with assault weapons.
2. If you never get called, you can never lose.
Many players are obsessed with getting paid off when they have a strong hand. I've seen some of them get amazingly agitated when they had pocket aces and won only a small pot. I hope you don't fit that description. As far as I'm concerned, that's a ridiculous reaction, for two reasons. First, it's always better to win a small pot than lose a big one. Second, rather than dwell on the small size of the pot, you should be thinking about what it means that no one gave you action. If you were able to win uncontested with A-A, it stands to reason that you could've won in the exact same manner with 7-2. If the timing is right, and you can play your junk hands in the same manner as your monsters, there's no reason why you can't win uncontested with 7-2 just as easily.
This is an especially vital concept in tournaments, where survival is the name of the game. You're hoping to accumulate chips, but that's not nearly as important as staying alive. If you can consistently win small pots without a struggle, you'll avoid elimination. The key is not to generate action on your good hands; it's to avoid getting action on any of your hands. How can you get knocked out if no one ever calls you? You must choose the right opponents and the proper times to go on the attack, so you can win uncontested pots as often as possible.
3. Loose players look for reasons to call, while tight players look for reasons to fold.
Tight players are obviously easier to bluff than loose ones, and you should never forget that. Before attempting any bluff, ask yourself if your opponent will be looking for a reason to call or to fold.
For example, you're playing NLH, and on the river you miss your flush draw. There's $200 in the pot, and you decide to bluff, since you've made up your mind that your opponent has a marginal hand at best. If you make a pot-sized bet, a loose opponent could easily talk himself into calling. He will think, "Wow, this guy might have me beat, but if I call and win, I can take down a big pot. That could make me a winner for the night! I've gotta go for it."
Meanwhile, a tight player might tell himself, "I think I could have the best hand, but I don't want to spend another $200 to find out. That's a lot of money. I don't want to risk losing so much when I'm not sure whether or not I have the best hand."
See the difference? The loose player saw the large bet as a positive, while the tight player viewed the exact same bet as a negative. It's hardly ever your actions by themselves that determine the success of a bluff; what truly matters is against whom you make those actions.
4. Poker is a game of information.
Winning players gather vital information about their opponents' hands without divulging information about their own. Just as that is the key to winning poker, it is also the path to successful bluffing. Anytime you make an uninformed bluff, you're merely guessing. You are taking a shot in the dark, just hoping that your opponents can't call.
You'll never enjoy long-term bluffing success that way. You need to make every effort to gather information about your opponents' hands and playing styles. If you can determine that at least one of them has a strong hand, you can save your bluffs for another time. But if you sense that everyone is weak, you can profitably attack.
Meanwhile, you have to be careful what kind of information your opponents are gathering. If you're bluffing, you can't allow them to pick up on the weakness of your hand. If anything, send out false information. Through your betting, give them reason to believe that you have a monster, when in fact you have rags.
If you can give out either false information or none at all, while simultaneously picking up accurate information about your opponents, you will unquestionably become a successful bluffer.
5. Your opponents' mistakes become your profit.
It's impossible to play error-free poker, but the biggest long-term winners will be the players who make the fewest mistakes. Your goal is not only to avoid making mistakes, but to induce as many as possible from your opponents. Whenever you have the winning hand and your opponent calls, he made a mistake. He could've folded and saved a bet, but instead that bet becomes part of your profit.
A well-executed bluff causes your opponent to make a far worse mistake. If you can get him to fold the winning hand, he will have cost himself the entire pot. Now the whole pot represents your profit, since you were rightfully entitled to none of it. It's not easy to get someone to fold a winner, but that's what makes bluffing such a valuable skill.
6. Good position makes everything easier.
You always want to act last. Since poker is a game of information, having everyone else act first gives you information about their hands. You can then use that information to help determine your correct play. Whatever you choose to do, you will be making an informed decision.
On the other hand, your opponents are forced to make uninformed decisions. They don't know what you plan on doing, so they have to make their best guess at your intentions. They're forced to guess, but you're not. You have the advantage. For that reason, all bluffs become easier from the button than from anywhere else.
Don't get me wrong. Bluffing from out of position is fine, as several of the ones in this book will demonstrate. However, don't ever kid yourself that you'll find better opportunities from the blinds than on the button. The button should become one of your best friends in the poker world, if it isn't already.
7. Indecisiveness leads to failure.
When attempting a bluff, you must be decisive. You must appear strong. Any indecisiveness will work against you. Against many players, if you take more than a few seconds to figure out if a bluff is worth attempting, you've missed your chance. They will assume that you needed time because you did not have a clear-cut decision, and they will call. You'd be better off cutting your losses, and focusing on being more prepared for the next time a bluffing opportunity comes around.
8. A good bluff tells a story that the victim believes and understands.
When I say that indecisiveness leads to failure, it is a two-way street. The same way that you must act certain, you have to also make your opponent feel certain-certain that he is doing the right thing by folding. You don't want to leave any doubt in his mind. Let him remain confident in his fold, because creating confusion in your opponent's mind is counterproductive. Confusion leads to curiosity. Curiosity often leads to calls.
9. A good bluff should be misleading, but not confusing.
There is a tremendous difference between the two. When you successfully mislead your opponent, you control him. You get him to do exactly what you want. If you need him to fold, then you mislead him into thinking that you have the best hand.
On the other hand, when you confuse your opponent, he is not sure what to think. Instead of specifically planting the idea in his mind that you have a strong hand, you've made him wonder what you have. As I just said, confusion leads to curiosity, and curious players will spend the money to find out what you have, especially in limit games. In no-limit, a big bet might keep someone from calling. Their prudence might outweigh their curiosity. But in a limit game, players often take the easy way out by calling a single bet, just to find out what you had so they don't need to remain confused.
I've always thought of that action as a "peace of mind" call, and I've made plenty of them. I was really unsure what my opponent had, so I called a single bet just so I could see their hand, and I could sleep easier that night. Sometimes they had the best hand and sometimes they were bluffing, but I was usually glad I made the call.
1. Noted poker author Jim Brier gets credit for this phrase. He used it in one of our conversations, and I thought it was so good that I told him I absolutely had to use it.
Many other players make that same call when their opponents confuse them. If you avoid getting your opponents confused, you won't have to deal with their "peace of mind" calls, and all your bluffs will stand a much greater chance of success.
10. Chances are, the flop won't help.
Unless a player has a big pocket pair, he probably doesn't feel good about his hand unless the flop improves it. A-K doesn't look so hot once the flop comes 8-9-10. 6-6 looks okay before the flop, but becomes drastically worse once the flop comes A-Q-8. With everything other than big pocket pairs, players need some help from the flop to feel confident. That works to your advantage because, more often than not, that help won't arrive.
A player without a pocket pair is almost a 2-to-1 underdog to flop a pair or better. Someone with a low pocket pair is in much worse shape; he is about a 7-to-1 underdog to flop a set. In either case, your opponent will probably receive a useless flop. If you put significant pressure on him, he will then be faced with a tough decision.
Sure, the flop probably won't help you either, but that's the point. Many times, the flop misses both of you. Then it's up to you to be the aggressor, because the person who bluffs first stands a good chance of winning. You don't want to be put on the defensive, looking for help from the flop in order to win. Put your opponent in that situation. Whenever possible, make him think you have the big pocket pair that doesn't need to improve. Or else, make him think that the flop that didn't hit him helped you instead.
You'd rather have a reliable read on your opponent-some more concrete knowledge that the flop missed him. But in the absence of that kind of information, as a backup plan you can always play the percentages. Those percentages strongly suggest that the flop was no help.
11. You can't be afraid of running a failed bluff.
Some people avoid bluffing for fear of embarrassment. If you fit that description, you are probably worried about getting caught and then having to show a garbage hand. Hey, I know how you feel. It's not a fun experience. But the more often you play, the more you should come to realize that it is simply part of the game. There is absolutely nothing wrong with bluffing unsuccessfully. On the other hand, there is something wrong with letting a perfectly good bluffing opportunity pass because of a fear of getting caught. That is a problem. You have to get over that fear, because if you're going to play optimal poker, you will have plenty of bluffs that fail.
There is no way that all your bluffs will work. In fact, if you are anywhere close to a 100 percent success rate, it shows a flaw in your overall strategy. It's good to know that your bluffs are working, but it also means that you are bluffing way too infrequently. Since you are succeeding so often, you should increase your number of attempts. Even if you reach the point where only 50 percent of your bluffs work, that is still a fantastic success rate. Most of your bluffs will involve risking an amount much smaller than the size of the total pot. Therefore, any success rate that approaches 50 percent will show a very significant profit.
What matters is not the number or percentage of bluffs that succeed, but how much money you make from your successful attempts, compared to the money you lose from your failed ones. Sure, you can attempt two bluffs, be successful both times, and be able to say that you have a 100 percent success rate. But you should enjoy much greater prosperity if you bluff twenty times and win ten of them.
Even the world's greatest bluffers have many of them go bad; it doesn't mean they were bad bluffs. As long as you picked a good spot and executed well, don't let a failed bluff get you down. Simply brush it off, and get right back to your A game.
12. No matter who your opponent is, there will always be times that you will have a chance to bluff him.
It doesn't matter if he is a novice or an expert, a tight player or a loose one, the opportunities will be there. Against a tight opponent, those opportunities might arise once per hour; against a loose player they might come once per month. Obviously, this book will have more practical application against the tight player, so he should receive the bulk of your bluffing attention.
But don't tell me that a particular player cannot be bluffed. It's just that the opportunities appear more frequently against some than others. In general, you'll make most of your profit against the players who are easier prey, but don't close your eyes to the possibility of bluffing against anyone and everyone. Just as we are all potential bluffers, we are also all potential victims.
Bluffing Is Never Impossible
Let's continue with that last point, because many players believe that bluffing is impossible in loose games. However, they are wrong. Is it difficult? Yes. Will your opportunities be slim? Yes. But is it impossible? Never! No matter the game, sooner or later, a good bluffing opportunity will present itself.
In general, the fewer opponents who are contesting each pot, the easier it becomes to bluff. As you'll see, many of the sample bluffs in this book take place against a single opponent, because bluffs are most often successful in heads-up situations. Some of them involve two or three opponents. Very few of them involve four or more, since you shouldn't try bluffing very often against more than three players. It's possible, but usually not worth attempting, since it won't succeed often enough to be profitable.
So if you're in a loose hold 'em game in which seven or eight players are seeing the flop, you can dismiss the idea of bluffing before the flop or on the flop. With so many players, it would just be a waste of money. But then, you have to watch what happens after the flop. Do most of the players fold once they see a flop that completely misses them? If so, then you might have only a couple of players seeing the turn, and bluffing becomes a possibility.
On the other hand, maybe most of them call the small bet on the flop, even with nothing, but then fold for the larger bet on the turn if they haven't improved. In that case, you're limited in your ability to bluff on the flop and on the turn but, once the field gets narrowed down, you might find an opportunity on the river.
Here's my point: Just because seven or eight players call before the flop, don't automatically assume that you'll never have a chance to bluff. What if most of them fold once they flop nothing? And then, the ones who stay in are drawing for flushes and straights that don't arrive? It won't happen often, but sooner or later it will happen, so always keep your mind open to that possibility.
Excerpted from The Book of Bluffs by Matt Lessinger Copyright © 2005 by Matt Lessinger.
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